Monday, January 21, 2013

The Frank Zappa Buyer's Guide #1: Freak Out

Freak Out was the first Mothers of Invention album, released in July 1966. While it may be cliché to say so, in this case it’s true – the roots of nearly everything Zappa did later are here.

While Freak Out was Zappa’s first album, he was already a seasoned composer (having written scores for films) and a fixture in the San Bernadino, California music scene at the time. He was all of 25 when Ray Collins asked him to play guitar in the Soul Giants, a local R&B band. Within a year, Zappa had taken over the band, renamed it the Mothers, and begun using it as a vehicle for his own songs.

This is actually an important point – the original Mothers were the only one of his bands Zappa did not form to his own specifications. The 1960s Mothers were, in terms of musical skill, the least impressive folks Zappa would ever play with. That’s not to say they were poor players, but they got by more on attitude than anything else. It’s clear from listening to it that Freak Out is the work of an R&B group transitioning into something else, under the direction of a mad genius.

(As an aside, Verve Records demanded that Zappa append “of Invention” to his band’s name, since “Mothers” was obviously short for “Motherfuckers.” This is one of the few cases of beneficial executive interference, as far as I’m concerned. The Mothers of Invention is an awesome band name.)

I’m not sure even the Mothers knew the depth of Zappa’s well of influences. The liner notes of Freak Out contain a list of more than 150 people who “have contributed materially in many ways to make our music what it is,” and that list includes musicians like Roland Kirk, Maurice Ravel and Eric Dolphy, all of whom would find their way into Zappa’s sound in later years.

But perhaps the most important musical influence referenced in the Freak Out liner notes is composer Edgard Varese – his quote “The present-day composer refuses to die” remains a Zappa rallying cry. Hearing Varese’s work at an early age, Zappa has said, shaped his conception of music, and made him want to be a composer.

In case you’ve never heard Varese, here’s his percussion piece “Ionisation,” conducted by Pierre Boulez, a name we’ll see in this guide again. Varese’s work (along with Stravinsky and the tape manipulation of Musique Concrete) informed nearly every “serious” piece Zappa produced.

So what we have with Freak Out is a composer steeped in complex and dissonant orchestral music heading a group used to covering “Louie Louie” and Motown tracks. Singer Ray Collins has a voice you’d expect from a band called the Soul Giants, and bassist and backing vocalist Roy Estrada does a fine Frankie Valli. Zappa’s relatively restrained guitar work here fits in nicely, and the quintet – with drummer Jimmy Carl Black and second guitarist Elliot Ingber – is a fine rock combo.

But it’s obvious from the start that Zappa had other, greater things on his mind, and he was easing his band in. The poppier half of Freak Out – only the second double album in rock history, and the first double-album debut – is sharp and satirical, Zappa making fun of the very music he’s celebrating. These aren’t your typical ‘50s love songs. In fact, they’re anti-love songs: “Go Cry on Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” “I Ain’t Got No Heart,” “How Could I Be Such a Fool.” The titles say it all.

While the music is largely straightforward, complete with horns and tambourines, the lyrics and arrangements betray the composer’s true intentions. “You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here” is a highly melodic piece of work – it could have been a hit, if Collins were not singing about the stupidity of his audience, and the band were not backing him up on kazoos. Listen to Zappa’s hilarious commentary at the end of “You Didn’t Try to Call Me.” His sympathies do not lie with the poor sap waiting for the phone to ring.

Amidst these sly digs are a few slices of genuine social criticism, starting with the opener, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy.” “Mr. America walk on by your schools that do not teach,” Zappa spits. “Mr. America walk on by the minds that won’t be reached.” “Who Are the Brain Police” is the creepiest thing here, Roy Estrada’s bass distorted beyond belief as he and Collins sing unnerving lyrics about government censorship. (This topic will come up again.)

And then there’s “Trouble Every Day,” the song that got the Mothers signed. It’s a Dylan-esque blues rant, written after the Watts riots of 1965, and contains some of the sharpest words Zappa ever penned: “’Cause the fire in the street ain’t like the fire in the heart, and in the eyes of all these people, don’t you know that this could start on any street in any town, in any state if any clown decides that now’s the time to fight for some ideal he thinks is right, and if a million more agree, there ain’t no great society…” Zappa wouldn’t write another song like it until “Dumb All Over” in 1981.

So that’s one half of the album. The other half finds the present-day composer stretching his wings. The 12-minute “Return of the Son of Monster Magnet,” which occupied all of side four of the original vinyl, is particularly inspired by Varese. At first, it sounds like a cacophony, like 40 people banging on 40 drums with wild abandon. But it’s a meticulously thought-out piece, conducted by Zappa, and completed in the editing booth.

There’s nothing random about it, nor about “It Can’t Happen Here,” for which Zappa overdubbed and tape-spliced his band into an alien barbershop quartet. It’s all painstakingly arranged, and creates a climactic arc to the record. The first half is about using the music of the time to give voice to the freaks, the ones not normally immortalized in ‘50s love songs. The second half is about letting those freaks loose, and listening to the wondrous sounds they make. 

The roots of everything are here. Freak Out presents us with a bandleader who loves old pop music, even as he lambastes it; who is not afraid to call things as he sees them and take people to task; who can arrange a beautiful song like “Anywhere the Wind Blows” and also create something as explosive and bizarre as “Monster Magnet.” For many musicians, something like Freak Out would be the apex, the crowning achievement. For Zappa, this shot across the bow of the cultural establishment was just the warm-up.

Rating: Essential.

Which version to buy: If you want to hear what Freak Out sounded like in 1966, you need to buy the MOFO Project/Object from the Zappa Family Trust. It’s an audio documentary of the making of Freak Out, with the original vinyl mix included. The version of Freak Out widely available on CD is the 1987 FZ remix, which contains an unfortunate slathering of digital reverb. But it doesn’t sound too bad, and in some cases, the tone is actually improved from the analog mix. If this doesn’t bother you, I’d pick up the 2012 re-release from Zappa/Universal.

Next week: Absolutely Free.


  1. Brilliant!!!
    Wonderful job Andre.
    I'm loving this already!

  2. Absolutely fantastic review! You really put this one into perspective and you didn't even say anything I disagreed with! :-) Go Andre! Go Zappa!

  3. Absolutely fantastic review! You really put this one into perspective and you didn't even say anything I disagreed with! :-) Go Andre! Go Zappa!